OG Tarot: The Standards & Their Modern Counterparts

Decks used: Tarot de Marseille (Nicolas Conver, Heron), Centennial Smith-Waite (Pamela Colman-Smith, US Games), Thoth Tarot (Aleister Crowley, AGM Urania)

Decks used: Tarot de Marseille (Nicolas Conver, Heron), Centennial Smith-Waite (Pamela Colman-Smith, US Games), Thoth Tarot (Aleister Crowley, AGM Urania)

If you want to get serious and scholarly with your Tarot studies and history, you'll ultimately run into the three decks that pretty much form the backbone of tarot as we know it today. Historically, the Tarot de Marseille reflects the beginnings of tarot with its non-scenic pips and archaic visual interpretations of the Major Arcana. The Rider Waite Smith (RWS), on the other hand, infuses the "original" Marseille cards with a scenic Minor Arcana that, along with the Majors, incorporates esoteric messages and the occult leanings of the Golden Dawn (an organization from the late 19th century to early 20th century). The third historical deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot, which veers away from the RWS and takes the Tarot de Marseille into another direction, with influences from Egyptian mythology, kabbalah and other esoteric practices.

I acquired the Thoth as my first deck without knowing any of this history (I was very confused by it), then the RWS, I purchased when I put in a little more research into tarot and found out that this was the foundation of most of the decks that appealed to me. It made sense to study where it all came from! And the Tarot de Marseille, I bought early this year because it seemed only natural for me to add this to my mix, even if I didn't really plan on using it (I might, in the future!). 

As a collector, it's useful to have these three decks because as much as I love my more contemporary cards, it's always a fun exercise to see how creators have used the originals to produce their modern spinoffs. 

Decks used: Sun and Moon Tarot (Vanessa Decort, US Games) and Thoth Tarot (Aleister Crowley, AGM Urania)

Decks used: Sun and Moon Tarot (Vanessa Decort, US Games) and Thoth Tarot (Aleister Crowley, AGM Urania)

The Sun and Moon Tarot is a modern reinterpretation of Aleister Crowley and Lady Freida Harris' complex deck. It strips the Thoth down to its basics and puts it all in a context that's a lot more digestible for contemporary palates. (For a more detailed review of these two decks together, check out my writeup over here). 

I very eagerly nicked the borders off of my Thoth Tarot for aesthetic purposes. It's been useful because it's allowed me to plunge back into my first deck very enthusiastically. I had so fallen out of love with it that it was relegated to the bottom of an old drawer for over 10 years. Now that the borders are off, it's regained its place in my tarot shelf and is in active rotation for client readings.

But because I took the borders out of my Thoth Tarot, the cards can be a little hard to read. I mean, thank heavens they're still structured like the pips and when I'm desperate enough, I'll actually count the number of cups in a card just to make sure I'm pulling the proper meaning. The keywords are out, however, so that's where the Sun and Moon Tarot comes in handy. I'm reminded of the themes the Thoth is hinged on, I'm able to distill them to their essence via the modern interpretations them (which utilize people!), and I'm able to grasp the potent sense of emotion through the colors and illustrations of the original Thoth. A fun, albeit trèstrès nerdy exercise would be a memory match game, having you pair the two decks and their counterparts.

Decks used: Tarot de Marseille (Nicolas Conver, Heron) and the Holly Simple Tarot (Holly Simple)

Decks used: Tarot de Marseille (Nicolas Conver, Heron) and the Holly Simple Tarot (Holly Simple)

If you've been following me on Instagram, you may have seen the series I did on tarot and numerology. Numbers play an important part in how you read the cards when you skip scenic illustrations and strip everything down to the bare bones of pips. The Tarot de Marseille is basically just like a regular deck of playing cards with an additional cast of characters… and the Holly Simple, which uses 8 illustrated swords for the 8 of Swords and so and so forth puts a fun, playful and modern twist on the playing card concept. (Interested in the Holly Simple Tarot? Read my review here). 

My biggest trouble with the Marseille Tarot, at first, was telling the difference between the Wands and Swords suits. After a closer look at the cards, however, I saw that the swords always curved. With the Holly Simple, there is no confusing one suit for the other—I like how straightforward its illustrations are. They're simple and in a very minimal, kooky way, they infuse just a tiny bit of elements to introduce certain emotions that we associate with the cards. It's a little tougher to associate feelings and emotions with the pips of the Tarot de Marseille, unless you're very good at gleaning meaning from the configuration of the pips (this is where numerology becomes very helpful).

In this case, I feel like the modern interpretation can be taken as an "introductory course" to the OG. Hack the Holly Simple and chances are, you'll read the Marseille like a pro in no time.

Decks used: Dame Darcy Mermaid Tarot (Dame Darcy) and the Centennial Smith-Waite (Pamela Colman-Smith, US Games)

Decks used: Dame Darcy Mermaid Tarot (Dame Darcy) and the Centennial Smith-Waite (Pamela Colman-Smith, US Games)

There are a ton (this could, for sure, be a literal thing) of modern versions of the Rider Waite Smith deck, so it took me some time to figure out which one to feature here. I decided on one of my most frequently used decks, Dame Darcy's Mermaid Tarot because it's the tarot deck I take along with me on my trips and is my go-to read for when I can't decide which deck to pull for my clients. This deck is a very good example of how flexible, malleable, and pliant the RWS and its themes and meanings are. 

I feel like the RWS has stood the test of time, not because of the mystery it once was shrouded in, but because it speaks directly to human experience in a visceral way. Even if we're way out of the era of the Golden Dawn, the themes and meanings they zeroed in on are so relevant to humans that even today, even with funky mermaids and Cornish sailors, everything clicks.

The RWS is so easily identifiable because it's been burned into pop culture over the decades. Even people who don't know tarot will probably be able to recognize Pamela Colman-Smith's illustrations.

You can probably tell I have a lot of respect for the RWS and that deference is easily shifted and translated into my love for its modern retellings too—especially in the Dame Darcy Mermaid Tarot. Everything is similar! (Just look at all those pretty pentacles!) I love the grunge-y 90s comic book, watercolor style and messy scrawl of Dame Darcy. I know this deck ran into a bit of trouble because of comparisons between it and another mermaid tarot deck, but I don't really mind the similarities because Dame Darcy's own art style is exceptionally unique. I like how the modern versions of the RWS make this century-old deck and practice palatable, acceptable and easy to understand for people in the 21st century. I don't think I would understand the RWS as much if I didn't have its current counterparts to act as a crutch and bridge the gap.

What do you think about the tarot OGs and their modern day versions? Do you think it's essential to stock up on the originals or would you rather skip them and move ahead to present day? I'd love to hear your thoughts (and any deck recommendations you may have that fits this theme as well!). Hit me up and let's talk :)